Thursday, March 8, 2012

What are the odds? by Terry Burns

I'm not a gambler? I don't play the lottery. We visited Vegas on a trip and the only money that went in a machine was by my wife and she won . . . she got a load of clean clothes. But I took statistics in college and I understand the odds on something happening or not happening.

I thought we might talk about that this morning. One of my clients put it on my mind. She is talking to a group of young people and wanted to know how many manuscripts from all of those submitted will be published. Not easy to answer because it varies from time to time, agent to agent, publishing house to publishing house. And we also ought to define 'published' as anybody can put a book up these days anytime they want to. I prefer the term 'credibly published' which does not depend on who published the book or how it was published but on how credible the sales of the project was. That's the bottom line, how many people did it reach? Book sales is how we keep score.

Using that as a criteria I said she would be in the ballpark saying that 5% of the projects that people submit end up credibly published. Wow. That's tough. How many projects will eventually publish in some form? That would be much higher, and I have no idea how to quantify that off the top of my head. But a huge number of these sell to family, to friends, and then are pretty much through. That's not credibly published.

How about the odds on getting an agent? I can't speak for anybody else, but if it will help I've looked at nearly 3500 submission over the past year and a half and I have 62 clients. (That's just my submissions, not the agency) You can add in another dozen or so writers that came through and are no longer clients. That's just about 2% but because I handle a lot of debut authors I get to see a lot of submissions from people who are simply not ready yet.

How about the odds on being successful submitting for them? Over the past 18 months I've sold 124 projects by submitting over a thousand times on their behalf. That's a 12% rate of success. It also means I've had to make over 8 submissions to find the right home for a project. This number is deceptive because a huge amount of targeting and trying to find exactly the right match goes into that. If an author just starts going down the market guide submitting can they expect to find success within 8 submissions? Not hardly. Chances are without a thoughtful, targeted approach where they know the one they are submitting to is the right person and why they are the right person, all of the submissions might fail, no matter how many there are. And it is true that submissions from agents are treated differently because editors know how many submissions we went through getting those few we decided to represent.

Over 70% of my clients have published since they signed with Hartline and 24 of them were with multi-book deals. Sixteen clients have nothing submitted on their behalf at present because they are either busy fulfilling contracts or have sold what they have until they complete some more projects.

 Did this give my client the stats she was looking for to talk to the class? Hopefully so. Are they encouraging or discouraging? They are realistic. Those who find success in the publishing industry do so because they know EXACTLY what they are up against, have patience, and take steps to overcome the obstacles they encounter, Rose colored glasses don't get you very far in this business. But I have a group of clients that are staying with it, that are learning and growing, that are attending conferences and working in critique groups. They are learning their craft, not just writing. And it is working. 


Terry Burns said...

Here's another interesting number. My submissions log totals the number of words on projects submitted. Not all entries in the log have such numbers as some don't provide word count but of the ones that have provided it I have had 143 MILLION words submitted to me. No, I haven't read all of those. Paraphrasing what noted western writer Elmer Kelton once said, "You don't have to drink a whole gallon of milk to find out it has gone bad."

Diana said...

Thank you Terry for helping others see what we are all up against.
Elmer Kelton gets a thumbs up from me for that quote.

Terry Burns said...

Elmer is gone now, of course, and the reason I paraphrased was he made the comparison with a quart of Scotch, but that isn't really appropriate for a Christian agent so I changed it to milk, which makes more sense to me anyway.

Diana said...

Well paraphrased :-)

Kimberly Rae said...

Love the quote! And since I didn't know Scotch could go bad, I appreciate the milk paraphrase. =) I'm suddenly feeling like getting a book mainstream published is like trying to get the main part in the next Disney movie. Me and thousands of other kids are trying out and we may all be able to dance and sing and act and stand on our heads, but they're looking for one kid with blond ringlets and a dimple in her left cheek.
Oh well, a whole lot of companies told Justin Beiber no because he didn't have a platform, so I guess we just gotta keep working at it!
Thanks for the reality check; it was well given.

Terry Burns said...

Truthfully I don't know if Scotch can go bad either, but that was the quote. At any given time a project may only fit at one place in the entire industry - later it may be the same, but now it is at a different place. By definition that means a lot of being told the fit is not there even when some serious targeting is taking place.

Andy Scheer said...

I like to compare the publishing process to what happens with salmon. Of the millions of eggs released somewhere upstream, the chances are tiny that any one of those will hatch and the fish will make it to the ocean, thrive and grow for a few years, then swim back upstream to where it was hatched. Yet each year, despite the odds, a few hardy, determined, and fortunate fish complete the process.

Cheryl Linn Martin said...

Ditto on LOVING the quote, Terry!
Thanks for sharing these numbers--now I'm even more in awe that I not only have a super fantastic agent (Hmm . . . who could that be?) but that I also have a contract. Glad I didn't see these numbers a few years ago!
Naw--I would have kept going. Thanks!
Aloha! --Cheryl

Heidi Chiavaroli said...

Thanks for the honesty in this post, Terry!

Cheryl said...

Fabulous post. Love the quote. They are talking about queries over at the Books & Such blog this week too, and while I am not encouraged by the news of how few writers actually make it, I am encouraged by the dedication of the agents. Though they are often referred to (negatively) as the "gatekeepers," I appreciate that not everything flowing through their doors makes it to print. I appreciate that they take the time to help their clients' mold their work to make it more marketable.

Thanks for another dose of helpful reality.

Terry Burns said...

Thanks Cheryl, the large number of submissions that do not make it can sound discouraging until we realize that most that are not making it are not going to conferences, are not in critique groups, are not taking writing courses or doing other things to learn and grow their craft. That means the dedicated writers are only up against those other writers that are working to learn their craft. Those odds are pretty good.